Emirati men shun women who study abroad

Young women are having second thoughts about studying abroad for fear that being perceived as "westernised" will damage their chances of finding a husband back home.

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DUBAI // Emirati women are having second thoughts about studying abroad for fear that being perceived as "westernised" will damage their chances of finding a husband back home. Emirati women, men and parents who were interviewed by The National said society considered women who had studied in the West to be undignified, damaging their chances of attracting an Emirati spouse.

Such perceptions, whether valid or not, tend to lead young Emiratis, as well as their parents, to question themselves and their motives carefully before going abroad for an average of four years. They feel that they may lose their culture and heritage while being educated in a foreign country. Most students at the UAE's federal universities are women. In recent years, an increasing number - largely from Dubai and Abu Dhabi - have taken postgraduate courses in Britain and the United States.

Sara, 21-year-old Emirati, wants to go abroad to further her art studies after finishing a bachelor's degree in Dubai. She is more concerned about how the move will affect her chances of marriage than how she will adjust to a new environment and educational system. "I am afraid if I study abroad my chances of getting married will significantly decrease, because many Emirati guys do not accept a woman who studied in a foreign country and was exposed to different cultures than our own," said Sara, who would only give her first name.

"Emirati men love to think the one they will marry is pure in all senses. Studying outside means coming back with a liberated mindframe. "It's not only the guy who doesn't approve of this, but also his family." Maryam, an Emirati matchmaker who asked for her surname to be withheld, said many Emirati men wanted wives who were committed to their culture and religion. "Many big families don't accept the idea of their son marrying an Emirati woman who studied abroad because she's viewed as someone who adopted a western lifestyle," said Maryam.

Such thinking was typical of a traditional Arab society, which tended to be judgemental of an individual who was unconventional and did not follow the crowd, said Linda Sakr, a counselling psychologist at the Dubai Community Health Centre. "People have certain ideas, and if you don't conform to the script people feel that something might not be right in this picture, especially in the Arab culture, which is quite conservative and conformist," she said. "If the picture doesn't fit in their head it can be quite problematic."

While some members of the older generation disapproved of an overseas education, others viewed it as a step forward for local women. "I am not against the idea because the Emirati female who studied outside is more independent and can deal with difficult situations better," said Fatima Mansour, a retired teacher and a mother of three. Some women admitted that their marriage prospects were reduced by them pursuing an education outside the country. Khadija al Moosawi, a 20-year-old Emirati who studied in Australia, said she felt left out because it was known that she had gone to an overseas university. "Most of my cousins who study in the UAE all got engaged and every time I get back home they tell me, 'People ask about you, but when they know you study abroad it's like you are not available."

Local men offered mixed reactions when asked if they would marry a woman educated abroad. Mohamad Ali Yousuf, a 24-year-old-Emirati who studied at the American University of Sharjah, was uncertain as to why someone would want to go away for their education amid several worthy choices at home. "I would like to understand the main reason for wanting or having to study abroad, where we have an abundance of good universities locally," he said.

Others were more direct. One Emirati man, who did not want to be named, made it clear that he was disdainful of any woman educated outside the UAE. His comments were all the more telling as he had studied abroad himself. "I wouldn't want to be involved with a family that doesn't regard the safety of their daughter [highly enough] by sending her alone to a foreign country," he said. While the perception of Emirati women who study abroad was not positive, it was slowly changing and tended to depend on the individual, said Wedad Lootah, an Emirati marriage counsellor at the community development centre.

"If we were to look at how society looks at the female who studies abroad, they view her in a shameful light and thinks that her actions are inappropriate," she said. "They perceive that she steered away from her existing cultural norms. The notion that the female who studied abroad is daring, outgoing, and independent." An Emirati woman's chances of marrying a compatriate were about 50 per cent lower if she had studied abroad than those who studied here because an Emirati man usually wanted a wife who was "under his wings", Ms Lootah said. Prospective grooms might refuse a woman who can handle her own responsibilities and has a mind of her own.

The media had a big role in creating awareness about such issues, Ms Lootah said. She suggested that discussion panels be set up between young Emiratis who study abroad and those who remain in the country. newsdesk@thenational.ae